25 Years of the South African Constitution

Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa

10 December 2021

The year 2021 marks a major milestone in the life of the South African nation; it marks the 25th Anniversary of the adoption of our country’s democratic Constitution. December 10 also marks International Human Rights Day. South Africa’s Constitution is one of the most internationally acclaimed constitutions in the world. It is widely acknowledged not only as one of the most progressive constitutions, but also as a transformative constitution with its primary concern being to facilitate change in political, economic and social relations in South Africa.

Former President, Nelson Mandela, signed the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa into law in Sharpeville, Gauteng on 10 December 1996. The signing of the Constitution in Sharpeville was a commemorative gesture in remembrance of the people who died during a peaceful demonstration against the vicious pass laws on 21 March 1960. The signed Constitution came into operation on 4 February 1997 and has since then drastically transformed the legal, political, social and economic landscape of the country.

Speech delivered by Minister Ronald Lamola virtually on the 25th Anniversary of the Constitution, 10 December 2021

The 10th of December is a day of great significance in our country. Although it is not designated as a holiday, it represents a moment we should never be shy of celebrating, no matter the challenges of the day.

Our history is too gruesome for us not to mark the day in which we set a new path into motion.

As we mark this day, I would admit that we are certainly not where we want to be as a nation, but we can also say we are not where we were in 1994.

If you had said to my mother and father, farm workers, in a Bantustan in the Eastern Transvaal as it was called then, that in just over two decades, one of their children would be serving a democratic government as a minister, they would have probably not believed that.

Equally, if we had said to Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Dorothy Nyembe, Lillian Ngoyi and Ruth First amongst others, that after 25 years of democracy, our society would still have the hallmarks of an untransformed society, they too would struggle to believe that.

Despite our challenges today, our democratic society is different from a society that was characterised by oppression, racism and human rights violations.

A careful reading of history reveals that South Africa as a nation state has had a special relationship with this day.

In the same year in which the National Party fully endorsed and implemented colonialism of a special type, the world stood up and applauded Eleanor Roosevelt when she stood in the General Assembly of United Nations and said the following, and I quote, “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”

Of course, we now know that this great day in the history of mankind had no impact on the apartheid regime.

Chief Albert Luthuli when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize on the 10th of December in 1961, said the following and I quote, “it is idle to speak of our country as being in peace, because there can be no peace in any part of the world where there are people oppressed.”

As the world marks international human rights day, it is hard not to think that very statement by Chief Albert Luthuli echoes loudly in the streets of occupied Palestine and right here on our continent. Western Sahara’s independence is still a matter of conflict, and the Tigray region remains volatile.

I am citing these examples to show that in spite of progressive intentions, if these are not followed by concerted actions by all of us, our best intentions remain hollow.

In the same way, our constitution remains hollow to survivors of gender based violence;
In the same way, our constitution remains hollow to those who idle in poverty and unemployment.
These by and large, are issues which are in our direct control as a government, citizens and the private sector.
The Constitution has to be a catalyst for equality under these circumstances. Socio-economic rights must become a reality.

In this vein, we need to be unapologetic in pursuing the goals which the Constitution has set us.

Since 1994, we have seen a substantial body of new laws which have emerged from all levels of government, to fulfil the mandate of the constitution.

We have created new institutions and in some instances, we have given them even more powers informed by the learnings of our journey as we continue to reform the state. To this end the reforms to the Auditor General come to mind.

In pursuit of democratising land reform, we passed the land restitution act, strengthened security of tenure and facilitated access to housing and the provision of social assistance for those need.

We firmly believe that land reform should be anchored on the restitution of land rights that has been dispossessed in terms of colonial laws; improvement of security of tenure for those whose land rights were weakened by apartheid laws; and land redistribution.

We equally advocate for multiple land ownership in South Africa which will mirror our social and economic construct. It should facilitate economic and social participation by any land holder. Through land reform, we want to restore the dignity and the economic power of those dispossessed by the partied regime and change ownership patterns.

We will ensure that the National Assembly adopt the Expropriation Bill, Land Court Bill and produce a Redistribution Bill which will lead to equitable redistribution of land in the interest of every South African.

These are some of the bills we are finalizing and producing to address systemic inequalities and unfair discrimination that manifested in the institutions of society and the practices and attitudes of South Africans.

To date we have put in place legislation directed at advancing human rights, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Promotion to Access of Information act and Promotion to Administrative Justice Act.

In recent times, pieces of legislation have featured heavily in our courts with the intention to hold those with executive powers accountable for their decisions and also holding individuals accountable for various forms of discrimination.

We also have a considerable amount of work being done to transform both the philosophical ethos of the state as well as institutions within the state.

As we look at the judiciary today, it is no longer white and male dominated. Although the gender composition of it has room for improvement, progress is both tangible and visible.

Today as opposed to 25 years ago out of 241 judges, 116 judges (69 percent) are black.

When one looks at our jurisprudence as a nation, one can see a significant departure from legal positivism which permeated the apartheid era. With cases like Bhe v Magistrate of Khayelistha, we saw gender equality being entrenched in African customs at the instance of the Constitution.

Even most recently, we saw the Constitution prevailing over individuals who occupied very high offices in the state.

When one reviews the Constitution over a period of 25 years, we certainly do find progress. This should tell us one thing, as a nation, our Constitution can be a document that binds us together towards a better life for all.

For our nation to prevail, we dare not lose our robust human rights culture which has grown from strength to strength in the past 25 years.
This human rights culture must be even more prominent now by all role players in society in a period where the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on people’s livelihoods and more broadly the economy. The world’s richest nations continue to be on the wrong side of equality through unjust hoarding of vaccines.

Our biggest threat to our democracy and its institutions is not only the politicians and big private companies amongst us who seek to override its foundations, but also citizens who chose to withdraw their participation.

Our democracy and Constitution does not come alive only at the ballot:
It is with us in the shareholders meetings where millions are dispersed for the executive at the expense of workers.
It is with us in the school governing bodies and University councils where exclusionary policies are adopted.
It is with us in the forums where men slut shame women and treat them like personal properties.
It is with us in the community when we chose to discriminate on our fellow humans on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation and even nationality.

Our constitution is a living document and it lives with us. We have the responsibility to keep it alive.
As we celebrate its quarter century existence let us pledge to keep it alive in all facets of society.